Sunday, September 27, 2009

Time for a Peace Dividend

One reason why the 1990s were a period of great prosperity was the peace dividend, the reduction in government spending resulting from the end of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the U.S. was able to greatly reduce military spending. Freeing up billions of dollars for private sector investment and spending allowed the civilian economy to prosper.

A major reason why the U.S. now burdens under enormous deficits is the ill-conceived war in Iraq, which caused the federal budget's surplus at the end of the Clinton Presidency to go negative to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars during the George W. Bush Presidency. The war in Iraq is winding down. But military spending hasn't abated significantly because of the war in Afghanistan.

The President is wrestling with the problem of increasing troop levels in Afghanistan. While much has been leaked to the press about this supposedly secret issue, not enough has been leaked to justify stepping up the war. There has been no articulation of an achievable goal. Lasting military victory is essentially impossible. Whatever Allied troops may accomplish at any location where they are concentrated, the Taliban can always retreat into Pakistan (our ally, as it were), where they will receive sanctuary and succor. Then, when rested, resupplied and reinforced, they can probe the endlessly snarled and remote Pakistan-Afghanistan border until they find a weak spot and return to fight another day. A similar strategy of fighting and then retreating into safehavens was used by Afghan mujahideen guerillas in the 1980s to fight and eventually defeat a Soviet force much larger and nastier than the current Allied force. How could an even enlarged Allied force, with its current rules of engagement, inflict lasting defeat on the Taliban?

Politically, the Bush II administration's guy in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, is rapidly losing any legitimacy as a result of rampant voting fraud in the recent Afghan elections. If even half of the allegations about Karzai's camp are accurate, one would have to conclude that, in a head-to-head election, Karzai could have beaten Richard Daley the elder by a landslide. Nation building in Iraq had a degree of success only because the Shiite majority was able to participate in largely fair elections. We now have a morass in Afghanistan that brings to mind the Diem brothers, whose corrupt rule of Vietnam was brought to an end by their U.S.-approved assassination in 1963.

The Taliban are primarily Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. In essence, the U.S. and its allies are very close to fighting a 19th century colonial war, trying to suppress the local populace and install a friendly government that would be perceived as a puppet regime. The experience of the erstwhile European colonial powers teaches that this isn't a winning strategy.

The U.S. has no vital national interest in conquering the Pashtun or the Taliban. We should work toward a negotiated resolution with Taliban leaders in which they are made to understand that harboring Al Queda will bring a robust U.S. military response, and ejecting Al Queda from its Pakistani sanctuaries will bring a meaningful flow of dollars. That wouldn't be pretty, but it's how we attained--rather, bought--peace in Iraq. A number of Sunni and Shiite leaders in Iraq were the beneficiaries of U.S. payments. They called off the young men from their tribes and assisted Allied intelligence in identifying Al Queda personnel. Al Queda was suppressed to a large degree, and the ensuing drop in violence gave the U.S. political cover to withdraw its troops from combat operations.

Going back in time, we did the same thing in the 1970s. For the last 30 or so years, Egypt has been the recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. aid. The sole--repeat, sole--reason for this aid was Egypt's willingness to sign a peace treaty with Israel. We're paying the Egyptians to refrain from burning off ammo in Israel's direction. Why not pay the Taliban to stop shooting at American personnel?

America needs a peace dividend. The costs of economic stimulus, health care reform, Social Security and Medicare loom more than ever before. There are many good reasons aside from financial cost to wind down the Afghan war. But in a time of economic distress and uncertain prospects for the future, ending an increasingly unpopular war would not only be the right thing to do, it would probably be a fiscally smart thing to do.

Presidents haven't suffered politically for taking America out of military morasses. Ronald Reagan's standing was hardly damaged at all by his 1983 decision to withdraw U.S. troops from hopeless entanglement in Lebanon. Bill Clinton's legacy suffered no lasting tarnish from his decision to pull U.S. forces out of the chaos in Somalia. Richard Nixon's tarnished legacy was probably improved by his decision to sign a peace treaty with North Vietnam, even though doing so made an eventual North Vietnamese victory in the South predictable. Dwight Eisenhower was elected on his promise to negotiate an end to the stalemated fighting in Korea. Barack Obama doesn't yet bear the blame for America's mistakes in Afghanistan and could look presidential by folding a bad hand.

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